A New Lens

But Mike gets to use it first!

I’d treated myself to a new camera lens late last month. When I returned from Washington last week, it was waiting for me at home.

Product ImageThe lens is a Nikon 16-85mm f/3.5-5.6G AF-S DX ED VR Nikkor Wide Angle Telephoto Zoom Lens. It’ll replace the 18-55mm lens I bought on eBay last year — the same lens that crapped out on me about two months ago. (Another reason not to buy used camera equipment on eBay.) That lens was cheap and it felt cheap — lightweight and plasticky. This lens was costly and it has a weighty, quality feel to it.

But that’s not why I bought it. It was the Amazon reviews that convinced me. Although I’ll never rely on reviews there to buy a book — I’ve been burned before, in more ways than one — I find that reviews of camera equipment are generally fair and reliable. It’s easy to identify fanboys and people with a gripe against the company. Weed those out and you can get some solid opinions of the products. In this case, just about all owners liked the lens.

But it was comments like these that sold me:

I have both the 18-135 and the 18-200, yet this lens has become my everyday go to lens for most of my photography. …Given the great sharpness (especially in the 16-50mm range), VR, and almost total lack of noticeable CAs, I can highly recommend the 16-85 for a general purpose, on-the-camera-all-the-time lens. – D80Shooter

I think 16-85mm VR and 70-300 VR lenses is probably all amateur like me needs, with light and compact 16-85mm VR lens mounted on camera most of the time. – Alex

This is how I was using the 18-55mm lens — as an everyday lens. This one promised more flexibility with better optics.

Of course, when I got back to Wickenburg, I had just 3 days to do a ton of stuff. I didn’t have time to play with the lens other than to snap a few photos in the kitchen to check the focal length range. Photography would have to wait.

New Bryce CanyonWhen we flew to Seattle on Friday, the new lens was in my camera bag with the rest of the camera equipment I take on the road. But with the back problems that have been slowing me down, I didn’t have time to do anything fun in Seattle, despite the fact that we had the whole day there. (I spent much of it sleeping off some painkillers.) The next morning, we began our helicopter flight from Seattle to Page. I was sitting up front, handling navigation while Louis flew. I had my hands full with directions for our scud-run south. I didn’t realize it at first, but Mike was sitting in back, snapping photos with the new lens. He continued to do so on both days of the flight and got quite a few good shots from the air. This photo, taken just outside of the Bryce Canyon area, is especially attractive to me because of the shadow created by the big, puffy, low clouds.

N630MLat Spanish ForkMy photography was limited to shots taken on the ground, like this photo of my helicopter at the Spanish Fork, UT airport. Although the photo doesn’t seem too interesting in this low-res shot, it’s really impressive in full-resolution, with clear detail of the clouds — enhanced with the use of a circular polarizing filter on the camera (not in Photoshop) — and dramatic mountains in the background. I think it’s my new favorite picture of my helicopter.

I’ll be uploading the best photos from the flight to my gallery at Flying M Photos.

I’m in Page, AZ now, planning to spend the next month and a half flying tours around Lake Powell and Monument Valley. (You can learn more about my summer flying gigs on the Flying M Air Web site.) I’m also working hard this month to complete my 72nd book, which, unfortunately, I can’t talk about here. So while I’ll be very busy through August, I should have free time in September to go exploring. Antelope Canyon is less than 5 miles away and I expect to spend several mid-day sessions in Lower Antelope Canyon. There’s also an interesting rock formation called The Wave within 50 miles of here — not sure where yet — and if my back heals up, I’ll take a hike there. This new lens should be perfect for these tight locations, since it offers a really wide view without much distortion. (My fisheye lens can take some cool photos, but its a limited use lens.) I might also charter an airplane for some aerial photo work. Airplanes are extremely limited for this kind of work — helicopters are so much better — but it might be worthwhile to give it a try.

If you have a lens like this, I’d love to hear from you. Use the Comments link or form for this post to share your thoughts.

George Washington at the 76

Am I the only one who thinks this is funny?

On Saturday, on my way back from Ellensburg, I stopped off in George to buy a quart of milk. George is 5 miles south of my camper, and despite the fact that I’d driven past the town a half dozen times, I’d never stopped there.

The cleanest looking place in town to buy milk was the 76 gas station. I pulled in and parked. That’s when I spotted the bronze bust of George Washington. Moments later, I realized I was in George, Washington. (Duh-uh.) And then I realized that the 76 (as in 1776) sign was right behind George’s head.

So I took the photo.

George in Washington

Am I the only one who thinks this whole thing is funny?

More Stupid eBay Buyers

Proof (again) that many people who buy on eBay are idiots.

A few months back, I speculated that eBay was for suckers when I reported on the condition of a “mint” condition lens I’d bought at almost retail and an auction for another lens that I passed on when the bid went more than $100 higher than the selling price on Amazon.com.

What “Mint” Really Means

According to my Mac OS X Dictionary widget, mint, when used as an adjective, means “in pristine condition; as new.” If that’s the case, then why is the term “mint,” when used on eBay, always followed up with additional describing words and phrases like “It is in mint condition, no scratches, no dust and no marks”?

Hello? Mint means mint. Like new. New items don’t have scratches or dust.

Unless, of course, you’re dealing with an eBay item.

The lens I bought that was in “mint” condition looked as if it had been on a shelf for two years. Yes, some of the dust had been wiped off, but there was enough in the cracks and crevices to tell the tale. And there was the tiniest of scratches on the lens closest to the camera body. That’s not mint.

And my husband, who recently decided that the low profile wheels that came with his used AMG weren’t quite right for Wickenburg’s dirt roads, replaced them with “mint” condition stock wheels. In the seller’s world, “mint” is an adjective that can be applied to tire rims that have obviously been scraped along a curb. No amount of polishing will get those scratches out. My husband’s good deal wasn’t such a good deal after all.

I try to use words carefully. Because of that, I would never apply the word “mint” to any item that has been used in any way. Unfortunately, I’m one of the few people who take the meaning of words like “mint” seriously.

The Price Thing Still Cracks Me Up

The other day, I bought another lens from Amazon.com — but not before I started “watching” an auction for a “4-month old,” “mint” condition lens on eBay. The auction ended a little while ago and the lens sold for $454. Add $19.95 shipping and the final price was just $5 less than I paid Amazon for a brand new lens.

I don’t know about you, but I think it’s worth the extra $5 to get something brand new in a box, shipped by a reputable company than to get suckered in by yet another eBay seller offering “mint” merchandise that isn’t.

So the question is, don’t these eBay buyers do their homework? Don’t they realize that they can buy brand new items for less than they’re paying for [often] misrepresented used items?

Or does the excitement of the auction process get them to bid stupidly?

POV.1 Progress

I’ll get the hang of it — one of these days.

I’ve now had my new POV.1 video camera for just over a week. And I’m not too pleased with my ability to operate it yet.

Tests Runs Okay

POV.1 CameraI made a few test runs with the camera.

The first consisted of me walking around the downstairs of my house, holding the camera in my hand and narrating what I saw. This was mainly a test of the controls and sound capabilities. It produced some predictably boring yet perfectly fine quality video. So far, so good.

Next, I attached the camera to a hat and had it running when I went down to feed the horses one evening. More narration, but I was limited to where the camera pointed because it was attached to my hat and the monitor was in my pocket. I couldn’t see what the camera was really pointing at. It turned out, it wasn’t pointing at what it should have been for about 90% of the video. So while the sound test worked fine — you could certainly hear my heavy breathing as I walked back up the hill — the video was not a keeper.

Next, I decided to test the setup in the helicopter. Because running the helicopter is not what a budget-conscious individual would do unnecessarily, I wanted my test to test all systems: the camera mount, video quality, and sound. Sound was the tricky part. I couldn’t just let the mic pick up cockpit sound because that was mostly helicopter engine and rotor noise. Instead, I had to figure out a way to get just the sound I wanted — intercom and radio sounds — directly into the POV.1’s recorder.

Lapel MicThe solution was to use a tiny powered lapel mic (similar to the one shown here) that I happened to have for a cassette recorder. The mic’s pickup was small enough to fit inside my headset ear cup, dangling right over my ear. I secured it in there with a clip. Any sound that got to my ear would get to the recorder. And the Bose Generation X headset’s active noise cancellation would filter out much of the sound of the helicopter running.

[A side note here: a more permanent solution would be to get an avionics guy to install an audio out jack. I already have an audio in jack, which is standard on Robinson helicopters, and allows me to listen to my iPod while I fly. An audio out would make it possible for me (or a passenger) to connect a video camera to the helicopter’s intercom system.]

I mounted the camera on the bar between the two front seats, using a mount I’d bought a year or two ago for a regular digital video camera. (That experiment had not gone well; the camera couldn’t compensate for the helicopter’s vibrations.) Then I went flying with Ed, my mechanic. We took a 14-minute flight around Vulture Peak, down to Vulture Mine, and back to the airport. Ed held the recorder unit while I flew. I used Viddler to post an edited-down version of the video. It wasn’t bad at all.

In fact, I thought I was ready for “prime time.”

Real Life Trials

My next for-hire flight was the next day. I was taking a dad, his birthday-boy son, and his son’s friend on a 50-minute flight to see the ghost towns and mines in the Wickenburg area. I figured I’d video the flight, then put the video on a DVD for the dad and his son.

[Another note here: That day, as I waited for my passengers, I met a pilot from Oregon who typically flies with three cameras on his plane. He had his laptop with him and showed me some of the video, which he’d set to music. It wasn’t very exciting stuff — not for a fellow pilot, anyway — but he said that his non-pilot friends love it. That wouldn’t surprise me at all.]

I was all set up as I had been the day before. As the helicopter warmed up, I started the recorder and placed it back on the space between the two back seats so it would be out of the way. I then did the flight. When we returned and shut down, I was surprised to see that the recorder was turned off. I figured it had run out of space on the SD card. But when I brought it inside, I was embarrassed to see that it had only recorded 41 seconds of video. The power button must have been hit after I put it down.

Dang! No video for my clients.

Anxious to get some real video to send them, Mike and I went out again with Mike’s mom. This time, I turned the camera on and locked its controls to prevent an accidentally pushed button from shutting it off.

I managed to capture 80+ minutes of video and sound. The only problem was, Mike’s mom’s profile or hands or shoulders are in every shot. In attempting to capture what was out the window in front of her, I managed to capture a bit too much of her. And 80+ minutes of partially blocked views, much of which are of boring open desert, really isn’t very interesting to anyone. Here’s a tiny bit I extracted and set to music.

On Wednesday, I took another client “heli shopping” down in Scottsdale. She’s a much smaller woman and I adjusted the camera a bit to take in more of the panel and less of her. But I also made the fatal error of using the camera’s “loop” mode to avoid capturing lots of boring stuff. Unfortunately, I didn’t understand how loop mode really worked, so when I thought I was turning it on and tagging the video, I was really turning it off. I didn’t capture any video at all.

Sheesh. Am I a loser or what?

Today’s Plan

Clamp1For today’s flight to Sky Harbor, I made some changes to the mounting setup. I’d ordered a special mounting clamp from the V.I.O. people and it arrived on Wednesday afternoon. It would give me more flexibility in where I could mount the camera.

There are two places I had in mind. The first was inside the cockpit bubble, at the front passenger’s feet. There’s a ridge there at the very bottom of the bubble and I’m pretty sure I can use the clamp and the 12-in. flexible mount I also bought to mount the camera inside, pointing out. The drawback of that location, of course, is glare. An additional drawback is the position of the recorder box and the difficulties I’d have attaching audio to it. (I can’t have any wires hanging loose around the critical areas near my flight controls.)

POV Camera on VentThe second place I had in mind was where I actually attached it: on the vent opening for the pilot’s door. This mount, which is shown here in the photos I took with my Treo yesterday, has the camera head outside, pointing slightly to the right and slightly down. The rest of the unit is inside, fastened to the helicopter’s airframe. I have all wires securely attached to various things that’ll keep them away from my controls. And I wrapped the camera and mount with red electrical tape, which is somewhat elastic and easier to remove than duct tape. I showed the setup to Ed and he agreed that the camera was not likely to come loose during flight.

Today will be an important test. If I can get the camera to work well from this position and not screw up using the controls, I’ll have some really interesting video. And if the mount and tape hold properly, it might be a good location for future installations.

To Las Vegas on Sunday

We’ll be flying to Las Vegas on Sunday. My planned route will take us over some very boring desert to Lake Havasu City. From there, we’ll fly up the Colorado River, past Topock, Bullhead City and Laughlin, Lake Mohave, Black Canyon, the Boulder Dam, and Lake Mead before turning west and flying right down Tropicana Boulevard to McCarran Airport. It’s one of my favorite flights and I’m eager to get the “good parts” on video.

So cross your fingers for me. I need to get some good shots soon.


I got a new “toy” today — a POV.1 video camera. Here’s some info about it. Try to ignore Alex the Bird carrying on in the background.